Did You Notice? … Hendrick Motorsports heads toward the Chase entering uncharted territory? Just one of its drivers sits inside the top 10 in the season standings: Chase Elliott in 10th. Only one of its drivers, Jimmie Johnson, has clinched a spot in the postseason field. Barring some bizarre circumstances, Elliott should join too but going 2-for-4 would still be the lowest Chase ratio for HMS since 2010.
Should Elliott miss? It would be the worst performance for HMS since 2005, the second year of the Chase. Only Johnson made the postseason then and he remains the best hope for a title; however, Johnson’s ten top-10 finishes are easily a career low through 25 races. Since his career low is 20 it’s almost certain the No. 48 team will fall short barring a miracle comeback.
Hendrick also has an impressive streak of running inside the top 10 in points. Since the program’s inception in 1984, when Geoffrey Bodine ran ninth in the season standings they’ve had at least one driver 10th or better in the final standings. No other major team out there can say that: not Gibbs. Not Penske. Not Richard Childress.
But the rollercoaster seasons of both Elliott and Johnson put that streak in serious jeopardy. One of the strongest Chase fields in years puts them at a disadvantage and keep in mind any driver who doesn’t make the Final Four, regardless of what round they’re eliminated can finish as low as 16th in the standings. It’s hard to believe we’re saying such things about a program that, three years ago earned its sixth title trophy with Johnson and eleventh overall in the sport.
Did You Notice? … The ratings for NASCAR’s “Big Four” races, the ones that used to comprise its Winston Million dollar bonus declined significantly this season? These events are still labeled crown jewels in the eyes of drivers and teams but have faded a bit when it comes to their television audiences.
NIELSEN RATINGS (OVERNIGHT)
2015 2016 % Decline
Daytona 500 7.3 6.1 -16.4%
Talladega Spring 3.8 3.8 Even
Coca-Cola 600 3.6 3.4 -5.5%
Southern 500 3.4 2.6 -23.5%
While the Southern 500 was up against strong college football competition Sunday night (Notre Dame – Texas, a game which delivered a 7.0 rating) NASCAR can’t be pleased with what they’re seeing, especially since Darlington was heavily hyped as a “Throwback Weekend” critics deemed successful on the track and off. The downturn at Daytona happened despite a successful speedway renovation unveiled this February, selling out the track in advance of the 500 with amenities well received by those in attendance.
It’s away from the stands, then where viewership has suffered. Has this foursome truly lost its luster in the face of NASCAR pounding the drum on its 10-race Chase for the Championship? Whatever the reason, NASCAR’s next title sponsor would be well served to focus on elevating these “old school” events to the point fans can enjoy the drama the old Winston Million used to employ. The old rules were simple: win two of the four races above and earn yourself a $100,000 bonus courtesy former NASCAR sponsor Winston Cigarettes. Win all three? Take home a $1 million bonus, a prize won just twice (Bill Elliott, 1985 and Jeff Gordon, 1997) during the program’s initial history.
What would have happened if the bonus were in play this season? Truex would have won $100,000 for victories at both Darlington and the Coke 600 back in May. Two of the night’s other top contenders, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski would have also had a little extra incentive to go for broke. This finish Sunday night would have also added focus to February’s Daytona 500, a race Truex lost by inches to Hamlin in a move which (under these rules) would been the difference in winning an extra $900,000.
At one point, Sprint toyed with a $1 million summer bonus idea but never really implemented one that worked during their tenure as NASCAR title sponsor. The Chase was their major sponsorship stamp on the sport; will the new title sponsor try a different approach? Big moments can still draw big audiences.
Take the Brickyard 400 this year as an example, a race that pulled an increase in viewership despite a dominant, boring performance by Kyle Busch. Why? The race was deemed Jeff Gordon’s comeback after Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was forced to sit out due to concussion symptoms. If a big name can bring fans back to the television set there’s no reason big prizes wouldn’t, either.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, and Kasey Kahne have all won at Richmond during their Cup Series career. Currently on the outside looking in on the Chase, do any of them have a chance to pull an upset? It’s unlikely but if anyone has a shot, my money’s on Kahne. He was fourth in the spring, one of just two top-5 finishes in the Hendrick horror of a season described above.
- Brian Scott’s run-in with Tony Stewart at Darlington was the worst moment yet in what’s been a terrible season. The rookie, driving decent equipment at Richard Petty Motorsports has yet to earn a top-10 finish, has wrecked out four times and sits a lowly 33rd in the season standings. Only Matt DiBenedetto has fewer points among drivers who’ve run all the races.
- The last two fall Richmond races have resulted in just 17 lead changes, at least 352 laps led by the winning driver (out of 400) and little drama as far as the Chase is concerned. There is just one more caution due to an accident during that span (two) than caused by a drunk fan (one). History says, then the fall at Richmond is due for a good race. Can it get one?
- Chris Buescher has slowly increased his padding on 30th in points since that unlikely Pocono victory. But while the rookie is likely to make the Chase let’s give a call to David Ragan. His underfunded No. 23 team has posted two 21st-place finishes in the last three races, stepping up in the spoiler role during what’s been a difficult season for them. They’ve made it tougher for Buescher, who’s run strong himself over the past month than some might have expected.
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